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Zack Exley

Zack Exley

Posted: December 6, 2009 09:43 PM

Pray to the Gods of Capital, Or Build a New Economy

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Robert Reich was the right guy to follow to last week's jobs summit. Reich has devoted a career to waking America up to economic reality: Capital is liquid and it's flowing away from the U.S. to countries where people are more educated, more efficient and poor. The core of his solution has always been the same: Invest in education, infrastructure and R&D. Then the good jobs will come back.

Reich is the best of liberal economic thinkers. It helps that he's a political scientist, not an economist: he deals with how capitalism actually works, not how it's supposed to work according to ideal models of either the left or right. But like all respectable thinkers of the current era, he restricts himself to a world in which imagining planned, non-capitalist economic progress is off limits.

We, the generations inheriting the messes of the 20th century, need to leave that world behind. We need to start imagining, working out and preparing for a global, coordinated economic transformation on the scale of a world war -- not only to restore jobs to people who had them, but to restore means of making a sustainable living to everyone on Earth. That would mean redirecting something like half of global economic activity for a decade or two to build up not just new infrastructure but whole new industries, and to clear away the ruins of the old.

Markets and decentralized initiative will be the lifeblood of that transformation, but you can't mobilize that many people and resources successfully without centralized leadership and planning. So here's the problem: it's become an article of faith of both right and left that centralized leadership and planning in economics cannot be democratic or accountable, and thus will only lead to disaster. The solutions of our age lie outside a cynical consensus that unites the elites and professional classes of nearly the whole world.

Terrible mistakes, misunderstandings and betrayals of 20th century politics established that cynical consensus. Understandable though it is, it still amounts to giving up on the project of democracy itself. Our generations' mission, should we choose to accept it, is to jump back into that democratic project. Only through it can we succeed at transforming the world economy into something that is serving instead of killing both humanity and the planet.

I realize that talk of "global mobilizations" sounds crazy today. What's important isn't that it becomes part of mainstream thinking right away, but only that a number of us get working on reintroducing the idea. Every mainstream's origins are radical. Adam Smith was a voice in the wilderness in his day. To shift the paradigm, some of us have to be willing to go off the mainstream intellectual grid for a little while. The good news is that doing so means leaving behind only a fringe intellectual elite -- and joining the people of the world.

When America hits bottom economically, movements and leaders will emerge that argue for war as a path to recovery: war against other countries, and war against immigrants and the poor. If no compelling movements and leaders emerge for economic transformation, the hate mongers will win because middleclass Americans will find nowhere else to turn for solutions. The path to the transformation will unfold globally, playing out differently in every country. Americans have a strong self interest in helping the global transformation to succeed as an early champion and contributor. Persuading the American people that the benefits of imperialism have run out may seem like a tough sell, but economic liberals face an even tougher sell over the long run.

The American public is finally listening to the diagnosis of realistic liberals like Reich now that the financial bubbles that masked our fundamental economic problems have burst. But do they have the patience for Reich's long road to redemption? No. While Americans support stimulus spending, infrastructure and education, they will never rally behind them as a cause. Why not? Because they're smart: they understand that those measures -- though very helpful -- won't rebuild our physical means of making a living, and will at best improve people's situations very gradually.

Incremental steps are only worth supporting if they're on a clear path to a better life. When people don't see the path, they'll withhold their energy from collective incremental steps and look out for their families instead. Today most Americans don't see a clear path in what's being offered by liberals, progressives or conservatives.

The Obama campaign briefly promised something different. Thousands of activists believed he was talking about fundamental change, and his very identity seemed to embody it. As soon as he started dealing in tired old liberal schemes, however, his movement disappeared overnight.

The "Tea Baggers" and other hardcore libertarians, on the other hand, take the rational self-preservation instinct and elevate it to the position of an ideology. Their response to dysfunctional national and international political communities is to give up on political community altogether, retreating to the family as the maximum unit of community. A large chunk of the left feels exactly the same way, but their maximum units of community are neighborhoods, locales and social networks. Against big plans, their motto is "Think Globally, Act Locally."

If we stay limited to those models of economic change, we're faced with two choices: the liberal economic approach of "be good and wait for capital to give you your job back;" and a purist libertarian (or localist communitarian) approach of "pull yourself (or your community) up by your bootstraps."

Both options ignore for ideological reasons the straight forward path of just going ahead and building a new economy: using our democratic political institutions to organize a system-wide, bottom-to-top economic transformation -- not waiting for it, not limiting it, but just doing it.

Even though talk of massive economic mobilization sounds unrealistic to liberal ears today, in reality it is the only thing that will ignite the people of the world -- especially the American people -- into action: It's the only course of action that will actually eliminate poverty, avert environmental catastrophe, and allow a fulfilling, comfortable living for humanity -- in this century, not 500 years from now.

Some of us need to start beating an intellectual path toward a movement that will fight for that transformation. Who wants to start?